As many of you already know, I recently finished a Masters degree in Piano Performance at Loyola University New Orleans; a masters degree that I in no way planned for and am still surprised I finished. While I have recently decided that going back to school was probably the best decision I have ever made, I think it’s important that I discuss some of the less popular subjects that got me there.
Many pianists and musicians in general have, at some point, been led to believe that talking about our injuries or physical setbacks is taboo. It is exactly this outlook that can lead to more serious or prolonged injuries, as we are told to just “tough it out” and keep going. The irony in this mindset is that, as musicians, we all rely on our bodies and the health of our bodies in order to make a living, so what are we doing promoting the idea that we shouldn’t be taking care of them? It’s imperative for young people to understand that physical pain is not something to be ashamed of, but rather a signal from your body that something is not right.
Over the last 10 years, I have struggled with a torn ligament in my dominant hand that resulted in two surgeries, a pin in my wrist, and most recently, arthritis in both thumbs. Needless to say, I think I pretty much covered all of my bases. A large part of my decision to go back to school stemmed from a desire to rehabilitate my hands. I needed a goal to work towards, and the graduate school audition served that purpose. Following my unanticipated acceptance, I was thrown into a Master Class full of undergraduates who were outplaying me and out-practicing me. At this point, I really began to question my abilities, wondering what a voice major with a hand problem was doing in graduate school for piano. I struggled with the possibility that I may not be able to finish the degree due to my physical limitations, and I really became my own worst enemy.
After a pretty miserable first semester of school, I was able to sit down and remind myself why I had chosen this path. Before I auditioned, I made a promise to myself that grad school was for me, and only me. The only person I had to prove anything to was myself. By comparing myself to others, I had quickly lost sight of my goal and had gotten in my own way. I had given myself reasons not to succeed. In accepting my own limitations, I was able to set myself free. No, I will never be someone who can sit down and practice for 3 hours a day; however, I have learned how to accomplish in 1 hour what I used to do in 3. I let myself off the hook and found that the only true limitations that I have are mental. The physical can be circumvented, but only if the mental application is there.
Attitude is everything, and it’s something I have to remind myself of everyday. There are many times when I get frustrated with a student for repeating mistakes, realizing that I am actually frustrated with myself for not having found a better way to explain what I am trying to fix. In these moments, it’s important to stop and realize that not all mistakes are created equal. If it doesn’t work one way, then we try it another way. More often than not, problems arise from our inability to look at the issue from a different perspective. This is true in both life and in music. In this light, I always strive to help my students understand that there is no “fail-proof” method of learning or fixing anything. There are only people, and people are certainly not “fail-proof.” Instead of holding ourselves to some lofty standard that we have set based upon unrealistic goals, let’s all let ourselves off the hook, for a change. Why constantly push against our own limitations when we can work with them and find that we actually never had any to begin with? I am a true believer in the idea that hard work can get us anywhere we want to be, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to work smarter, either.